The Black Box label
is justifiably recognised for its programming of often hard-hitting
modern music. This CD, on the other hand, will sit snugly next
to collections rich in the choral works of Herbert Howells.
It comes alongside a warm mini-‘el niño’-ette of issues with
music by Pärt, Tavener and Copland.
Ned Rorem is known
for his prolific output of songs, and his vocal writing here
sounds completely natural and idiomatic as religious music.
Rorem admits to being an atheist, and is quoted as saying in
the excellent and informative booklet notes, ‘Why do I set these
texts? Because I am commissioned ... A poet’s personal convictions
have nothing to do with his quality.’
There is no denying
the craftsmanship of these works, and with The Seventieth
Psalm coming from the beginning of his career, it is clear
that Rorem’s talent was always solidly reliable. This piece
has almost inevitable Hindemith sonorities, with its wind band
orchestration, descending bass lines and ornamented chorales.
choral writing of Seven Motets and Three Hymn Anthems
is uncomplicated, but has sufficient harmonic subtlety and
variety to take it beyond the banal. While the music is always
sensitive to the text, I did find the printed words in the booklet
extremely useful – it may be me and my Englishness, but I find
the Harvard University Choir hard to understand. Their singing
is undemonstrative and at times quite beautiful, but either
they or - I suspect - the recording make a muddy meal of textual
articulation. This is a possible side-effect of trying to create
a consistent choral sound around which such a variety of accompaniments
A Sermon on Miracles
is another youthful work, and has string orchestra accompaniment.
The orchestra is a little distant and woolly, but the choral
soloists are good. The music has an attractive pastoral character
not unlike some of Tippett’s less challenging work, as do the
organ filigrees of the opening Arise Shine. All of the
other choral pieces have organ accompaniment, which supports
or illustrates the choral writing to great effect.
The solo organ pieces
derive from Rorem’s ‘Organbook III’ (Impromptu) or his
Six Pieces for Organ, commissioned for the American Guild
of Organists. These, like the choral works, are fairly restrained
and approachable. Why and Because has ‘Mikrokosmos’ style
contrary motion and some dashes of quasi polytonality. The
Flight into Egypt has some nice close dissonances and shifting
chorale moments. Entreat me not is a slow miniature which
amounts to little more than an extended cadence, but has the
pleasing quality of a short coda to something grander
– like the fragment of a lost painting. The organ used is nothing
special, but neither is it a gothic horror.
This CD makes for
very pleasant listening. None of the works really leap out as
world-shakers, but neither do they offend as lacking in substance
or quality. Ned Rorem is one of those composers whose lack of
neatly definable categorisation means that his name is of a
lower profile than some, but it would be a shame to overlook
these works for that reason. With a little more quality in the
performances and recording this is the kind of CD which could
have done for Black Box what Hildegard von Bingen did for Hyperion.